Traditionally pheasants are hung for a week or so before preparing for the table, but why – and how? This article explains the process, from shot to pot.

Why hang pheasants?

a brace of pheasants hanging on a gate, imageTo the modern supermarket shopper, used to shrink-wrapped packages of anonymous meat (which are kept looking ‘fresh’ with a little nitrate), this is madness. Surely fresh is better?

Not so. The pheasant is a close relative of the chicken so its flavour is mild, and what muscle it has is tough from a lifetime of running, flying, dodging traffic and scaring the living daylights out of walkers by erupting from the undergrowth six inches from their feet. Eaten fresh, it needs long slow cooking and has very little flavour: small wonder so many people dismiss it as not worth the effort.

Hung, it’s a different story. Despite horror stories about a few people who hang meat for so long it practically falls to pieces, properly hung game becomes tastier and more tender, with no off flavours. Work commissioned by the New South Wales government using a taste panel of ordinary people (not game connoisseurs) found that there was a ‘sweet spot’ at 10°C (41°F). Unless you have a meat safe the temperature is unlikely to be ideal though, so here are some guidelines for other conditions.

Best hanging times

5°C (41°F) 7-12 days (18 days max) less flavour
10°C (50°F) 3-7 days (11 days max) best taste and texture
15°C (59°F) 2-3 days (4 days max) meat tougher

Hanging pheasants is a simple matter of tying them and popping them up on a hook, feathers and guts still intact. Look them over before you leave them: if they have been gut-shot or badly torn then butcher and cook them immediately. It doesn’t matter which way up you hang the birds, but make sure they are safe from vermin and rain, and get good air circulation but no direct sun.

Plucking pheasants

a closeup of pheasant feathers, imageYoung birds can be wet-plucked, but unless you have bought a pen-raised bird you can’t really be sure of the age (although long, dark, sharp spurs on a cock are a giveaway that he’s no spring chicken). In all other cases it’s best to dry-pluck. This is no joke, because even if you’re an experienced plucker it takes a while and makes quite a bit of mess. So unless your bird is a good big one and you intend to roast it simply – don’t bother! Skinning is much easier and takes a fraction of the time.

Skinning pheasants

Skinning a bird is quick and easy, and with practice you can get the whole process down to about two minutes per bird. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Pull out the tail feathers one at a time.
  2. Trim off the wings. On a chopping board, feel along the bones of the upper wing where it meets the body and cut as close to the shoulder joint as possible, pushing down on the knife until you feel the bone break.
  3. Take the feet off by running a sharp knife around the first leg joint, and then cutting through the main (hamstring) tendon. Then pull the foot away firmly until it comes off, taking the smaller tendons with it. Watch out for the spurs on older cock birds – they’re sharp!
  4. Take off the head. With the bird breast side up on the chopping board, feel for the bird’s crop. Move it up if necessary, and cut through the neck right where it enters the body cavity.
  5. Cut the whole tail off, including the bird’s vent.
  6. Once again with the bird breast side up, make a nick in the skin just under the breast bone and use your fingers to pull the skin apart. Work your fingers under the skin and ease it off all the way round. Don’t worry if it tears – it often doesn’t come off in one piece.
  7. Sweep away as many feathers as possible and pluck away any that are stuck to the bird, then make another nick under the breastbone to make a hole into the body cavity. Use your forefinger and thumb to grip the innards as high in the cavity as possible, then pull gently but firmly downwards and outwards, lifting the whole lot out of the bird.
  8. Check that nothing has been left behind, and if the gut remains attached at the vent then pull it free.
  9. Wash the bird off and take it to the kitchen: don’t let it dry out by letting the air at it for too long.
  10. As with any game, remove any parts of the birds visibly damaged by shot and warn diners not to eat any lead pellets (in case you miss one!)

There’s no substitute for having someone teach you how to do this, but there is a YouTube video you can watch.

There’s a second, faster method for skinning a pheasant which just leaves you with the crown (breast meat). It’s not for the faint-hearted though! Put the bird on the ground in front of you, breast side up, and stand on the wings as close to the body as possible. Put your weight on the insides of your feet, towards the bird, and then pull the legs up towards you, one in each hand. Bend your knees and keep your back straight, and then gradually straighten your knees until the flesh gives. This will breast the bird, taking everything with the legs, including the insides. All you have left to do is remove the wings and slide the skin off before rinsing.

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